In May, a major Chinese port shut down its operations for 20-days due to a COVID-19 outbreak among its dock workers. That in turn caused an even longer aftershock. Situated about 50 miles north of Hong Kong, the Port of Yantian handles enough goods to fill 36,000, 20-foot tractor trailers every day.
With the port left temporarily out of commission due to the pandemic, shippers worldwide scrambled to make other arrangements for getting their goods out of China. Even weeks later, productivity had only recovered to about 70% of normal levels at a port that handles 13 million 20-foot shipping containers a year, making it the third-largest terminal in the world.
The timing couldn’t have been worse for the back-to-school season, during which time retailers know that if the goods students need aren’t on their store shelves, customers will go elsewhere to get their needs met. For one large American retailer whose goods are produced in the bustling Yantian-Hong Kong region, this meant navigating a port closure that threatened to impact its supply during one of its busiest times of the year.
More than $37 Billion Spent on Back-to-School
According to NRF, total US back-to-school spending reached $37.1 billion in 2021, up from $33.9 billion last year. With the strain of the pandemic and global economic recovery continuing to take its toll on the world’s supply chains, having containers come to a literal standstill for a full month created significant bottlenecks for shippers.
“It’s not just about the month that the port shut down, but it’s also about the 20 or more days that it takes for a port to dig out of its massive backlog,” said Scott Scharff, National Account Manager at DB Schenker. One large retailer that imports goods from the Yantian/Hong Kong area needed to find a fast alternative to the ocean carriers that it typically relies on to move its goods from Point A to Point B.
“With the port closing and the resultant delays, the company knew it needed a faster, more reliable way to get its shipments moving,” said Scharff. Knowing that air freight could be a viable alternative during this urgent time, the retailer did the math and realized that it would need multiple planes to carry its high volume of product.
For help, the retailer asked DB Schenker about chartering flights out of Yantian and/or Hong Kong to the US. “They just needed to get them into the country, no matter what,” said Scharff, whose team worked quickly to secure three different charter planes to carry the goods from Hong Kong to Seattle.
With the volume of passenger flights not yet back to pre-COVID levels, finding multiple planes to accommodate the big shipment was difficult but far from impossible for DB Schenker. “We got the request on a Friday night at 7PM,” said Scharff, “and everything was arranged and in place within four days.”
Filling Three Planes
Along with the school supplies, the retailer filled the planes with other high-priority products that were stuck in China due to the port shutdown. This was an important mission both for DB Schenker and for the retailer, the latter of which knows that back-to-school shoppers also want the clothing, backpacks and other items that their kids need for class.
“Stores know that if they don’t have the necessities on their shelves, then customers are going to go elsewhere,” said Scharff. To make sure this didn’t happen, DB Schenker arranged the successful transport of the school supplies and other goods in plenty of time for the back-to-school shopping season. With experienced teams working both in China and in the US, the logistics provider arranged the transportation and prepped the shipment.
Working with several vendors in Hong Kong, DB Schenker built unit load devices (ULDs) needed to move the cargo being shipped as airfreight, secured the airfreight capacity and arranged for the transport. In Seattle, DB Schenker’s branch manager arranged for all of the staffing needed to unload the plane, sort the product and then load the goods onto 12 different, full-size tractor trailers.
The goods were then delivered by truck to the retailer’s distribution center. “Everything went very smoothly,” said Scharff. “That’s a testament to both DB Schenker’s origin team in Hong Kong and receiving team in Seattle. We got excellent feedback from the customer.”
Ready to Handle More
It’s not unusual at all for DB Schenker to step into difficult situations and make things better for its shippers and their end customers—in this case, schoolchildren who needed supplies, backpacks and clothing for a successful back-to-school experience. In many of these situations, air charters help to fill a gap when a shipper’s first transportation choice becomes less feasible.
“At DB Schenker, we’re pretty good at providing full, dedicated charters for customers that need them in a pinch,” said Scharff, who estimates that the logistics provider managed over 2,000 dedicated charters in 2020, up from about 242 the prior year.
“We’ve done the most charters out of any other global logistics provider,” Scharff said, “and we’re always ready to do more as our customers need them.”